Some of the most enchanting images of a vacation can be taken at night. Picture the twinkling lights of Istanbul's Blue Mosque, or even an East Village street scene in New York City---these are images, and memories, that will stick with you. Yet taking decent night shots remains a constant challenge for amateur photographers and hobbyists. Even the pre-programmed "Night" setting that comes with many compact cameras still results in blurry or overexposed night shots.
For a camera to capture a crisp photograph, various factors such as available light, image sensor sensitivity (ISO), shutter speed], and aperture must work in concert (you can read more exposure basics in the Fodors.com photography section). During low light situations like dawn, dusk, or at night, the camera can't get enough light to properly process the photograph without using flash.
And the problem with using flash at night is that your photographs become overexposed, thus defeating the purpose of capturing that ambient night scene with its twinkling lights.
While many digital SLR cameras come with in-built vibration reduction technology and ISOs of 3200 and higher to help handle a lot of these issues, investing in an expensive DSLR camera may not be a practical solution especially if you're a hobbyist.
Here are a few tips that will help you capture better night shots with a basic point-and-shoot compact camera.
Steady Your Camera
Because your camera's image sensor becomes hypersensitive in low-light situations, external factors such as movement or slight shaking affect how accurately the camera records the image.
By placing your camera on a steady surface such as a mini tripod, low wall, or table, you can eliminate any additional external shakes. Doing so helps the camera process the image more crisply.
Cars and people in motion usually come out as blurry apparitions in many night shots. There's also a difference between a movement shot with trails of light and a plain ol' blurry photograph. To get that signature movement night shot, you need to slow down your shutter speed.
If your compact camera doesn't allow you to manually do this, just use your "Night" setting in addition to a tripod or steady surface. This will make all stationary objects like buildings crisp while elements moving around it will become little blurs of movement.
Follow the Action
Sometimes you may want to have one moving element remain sharp while others remain blurry. For example, try focusing on a single car in the foreground while other cars around it remain blurry.
To achieve this, rest your camera as steadily as you can on your palm, find the moving object you want to focus on, and continuously follow it with your camera. Click the shutter button to capture the image but keep moving your camera in the direction of the moving element until it's out of your frame.
Lower Your ISO
ISO is used to measure the camera sensor's sensitivity to light. Selecting a low ISO—between 100 and 250—forces the camera not to worry about light and movement.
Photographs taken at these lower levels tend to be crisper because the sensor assumes that there's enough light to process the image, and thus creates the optimal recording settings.
The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the sensor becomes. Higher ISOs such as 800 and upwards tell the camera that there isn't enough light or that there's a lot of movement (like sports scenes) and that the sensor needs to be more resourceful when using whatever available light there is to process the image.
More complex, dynamic situations are usually captured at a higher ISO, but the resulting photographs tend to be grainier or "noisy" because the camera had to be resourceful when leveraging available light.
By setting your ISO as low as possible (or switching it to the "Landscape" mode) in addition to using a tripod or a steady surface, you can eliminate external shakes, and "trick" your camera into capturing the highest quality night image you can by letting the camera assume there is enough light and little to no movement.
Visit Fodor's Travel Photography section for more photography tips and tricks.